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Geographies of Disability

reviewed by Elizabeth B. Keefe & J. S. de Valenzuela - 2001

coverTitle: Geographies of Disability
Author(s): Brendan Gleeson
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415179084, Pages: 224 , Year: 2000
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In Geographies of Disability, Gleeson provides an innovative approach to the discussion of disability. Writing primarily for an audience in the spatial disciplines, (architecture, geography and urban planning), history and disability studies, this author has a compelling perspective to offer other disciplines, especially education. In the introduction, he posits that shifts in theoretical and practical research agendas are necessary to contribute to larger social movements that will "both resist the sources of spatial oppression and articulate new ways of creating inclusionary landscapes and places" (p. 3). In this effort, then, this book is key to expanding our framework for considering the relationship between social space (spatiality) and disability in education, at a time when inclusive educational practices are at the forefront of educational debates.

The purposes of the book are twofold. First, Gleeson provides a theoretical framework for "the broad historical-geographical relationships that have conditioned the social experience of disabled people in Western societies" (p. 3). Second, he provides case studies that examine and illustrate the impact of capitalistic modes of production on the marginalization of disabled people*. Although the scope of this text is limited to organically based physical and intellectual impairments, it has clear relevance to other disabling conditions. The book is organised into three parts, each of which is reviewed below.

In Part One, Gleeson elaborates a socio-spatial model of disability that is based on embodied materialism, which in turn derives from a range of historical materialistic approaches. Gleeson rejects both the medical model and social models that do not take into account historical and materialistic perspectives. He argues that these perspectives are needed to complement social models of disability in the following: "Attitudes, discourses and symbolic representations are, of course, critical to the construction of this experience, but are themselves materialised through the social practices which society undertakes in order to meet its basic needs" (p. 25). At the end of Part One, Gleeson posits a need for ‘geographies of disability’ which include both the "socio-spatial patterns and relations through which impairment is oppressed by dominant power relations" and the "socio-spatial experiences and practices of impaired people who must negotiate disabling power structures in their everyday lives" (p. 54). In later portions of the book, Gleeson explores the geographies of disability in feudal England, industrial Melbourne and contemporary Western cities.

In Part Two, Gleeson reconsiders the historical participation of the physically impaired in the social mainstream by critically examining the myth of disabled people as beggars on the margins of society as a historical constant. Using the Annales tradition that attempts to reconstruct the everyday lives of ordinary people from historical records, Gleeson presents studies of disabled people in two historical contexts, feudal England and industrial Melbourne. He argues that in feudal society the participation of all individuals, including those with disabilities, was required to sustain community and that home and work space were not strictly differentiated. He argues that capitalist modes of production increased the maginalization of disabled people by devaluing their participation when they were not able to produce the same labour as nonimpaired persons. Work and home environments became differentiated through the division of labour thereby reducing opportunities for the disabled to contribute productively in a socially valued way.

In Part Three, Gleeson looks at the geographies of disability in contemporary Western capitalist societies through case studies of deinstitutionalization and physical accessibility. Gleeson looks at these two areas from the perspective of their ability to "enable justice," that is to achieve material satisfaction and socio-cultural participation for disabled people. He argues that the ability of deinstitutionalization to free people with disabilities from "desocialization" is limited by socio-political forces such as resistance from property owners, misalignment of social policy and urban planning, and neo-liberal politics. He provides contemporary Western urban examples of each of these limiting factors. Gleeson proposes that similar limitations exist in the realm of improving physical access. Despite human rights legislation lack of physical access remains a major issue for disabled people. Gleeson notes that community care and accessibility have the potential to improve the socio-spatial oppression of disabled people but that a radical transformation of the socio-political conditions that lead to oppression would be required.

In concluding, Gleeson offers a challenge to those in the social sciences and disability studies to expand geographies of disability to other social spaces. The model proposed in this book could provide a useful theoretical framework for the study of social spaces experienced by students with disabilities in educational environments.

*The lack of person first language in this review is consistent with the author’s terminology.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 123-125
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10572, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 3:36:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Keefe
    University of New Mexico
    Elizabeth B. Keefe is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of New Mexico. She specializes in inclusive education, educational reform, teaching methods and curriculum for students with and without disabilities, research into the impact of educational reform efforts, and issues of equity and diversity.
  • J. de Valenzuela
    University of New Mexico
    J. S. de Valenzuela, is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of New Mexico.
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